Archive for the ‘Vietnam War’ Category

Best of Enemies

September 14, 2015

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Best of Enemies is a documentary about the series of “debates” that took place between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It’s an odd film, since it typifies the very phenomenon that it seeks to criticize. The film alleges that these debates were the beginning of the “talking heads” approach to news programming, and it alleges that political discourse is the poorer in this country because of this. Yet in its own narrow focus on the personalities of the two men, the film merely becomes an example of this same approach. There is little discussion of the issues that the two men debated – quite important issues the included the Vietnam War, poverty, and the right to protest.

This film is more-or-less even-handed in its depiction of the two men, with interviews with friends and admirers of both of them. It probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of either one of them. There are some amusing moments, but because of its shallowness, it never really rises above the level of fluff.

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Good Kill

June 9, 2015

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Our recent strategy in the War on Terror is similar to our strategy in Vietnam: keep killing the enemy until there are none left. That strategy didn’t work in Vietnam, and it’s not working today. The Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan, and Daesh now control large parts of Syria and Iraq. Is it time for our policymakers to try something else?

This question is posed by the recent film, Good Kill, written and directed by Andrew Niccol. It tells the story of Thomas Egan (Nathan Hawke), an Air Force pilot who has been reassigned to being a drone pilot. After two children are inadvertently killed in a drone attack, he begins to have doubts about his job. The emotional stress that Egan is under starts to cause strains in his marriage to Molly (January Jones).

Things get worse when Egan’s group is placed under the direct control of the CIA, whose rules of engagement are looser than those of the military. They have a policy of a “double tap”: firing a missile at the first responders to an attack, on the theory that most such people are likely terrorists themselves. The CIA considers it an acceptable risk that innocent people will almost certainly get killed. The characters argue about this. Egan’s fellow crew member, Vera (Zoë Kravitz), makes the case that drone attacks are causing people to side with the terrorists, while Egan’s commanding officer, Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) makes the “we can’t risk losing one American’s life” argument. The debate is never resolved one way or another. At the end, however, when Egan literally walks away from his job, it’s clear that we’re expected to see this as a moral redemption for Egan. Although it seems an empty victory, since we know that the military will simply replace him with somebody else.

Good Kills is a well-made film that raises a number of troubling questions, but its feel-good ending cant’t conceal the fact that it doesn’t offer any answers.

The Diminishing of Christopher Hitchens

March 14, 2015

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A foundation has recently announced that it will be handing out an annual journalism award named after Christopher Hitchens. One of the judges for this award will be Christopher “Thanks, Dad!” Buckley, so you know beforehand that this will be yet another meaningless award that we can all safely ignore.

I stopped paying attention to Hitchens back in 2001, when he wrote that the 9/11 attacks gave him a feeling of “exhilaration”. (Katha Pollitt rightly called this “childishness”.) At the time, I made the naive, but nonetheless reasonable, assumption that everyone else had done the same thing. I gradually became aware that I was sadly mistaken about this. (Personal disclosure: I never met Hitchens, but he once spat a cigarette at a friend of mine.) Hitchens became a noisy advocate for the illegal invasion of Iraq. In spite of this, Hitchens is greatly admired today, but he is admired for the wrong reasons.

Hitchens’s most important work is also his least influential: The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he convincingly argued that Kissinger is a war criminal and possibly a traitor as well. Today, Kissinger is widely feted, and he even makes appearances on comedy shows. When an anti-war group recently interrupted Kissinger’s testimony before a Senate Committee, Sen. John McCain called them “low-life scum”. McCain apparently doesn’t mind the fact that he spent six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp because Nixon and Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War. Such forgiveness is truly touching to see. (This same McCain once said that he wouldn’t mind if US troops were in Iraq for the next 100 years. This is masochism as foreign policy.)

According to Vanity Fair: “… the foundation intends both the prize and the award ceremony to celebrate and draw public attention to the values that marked Christopher Hitchens’s life and career…” What it will actually celebrate is the moral bankruptcy of our society.

Why I’m Glad That ‘The Colbert Report’ Has Come to an End

December 23, 2014

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Stephen Colbert is a talented guy who has often made me laugh, but I must admit that I’m glad his faux-news show has come to end. On his final show, one of Colbert’s guests was Henry Kissinger. This was Kissinger’s second appearance on the Report. Earlier this year he appeared in a comedy sketch with Colbert. So, Colbert has had the rare distinction of doing comedy with a war criminal.

This shows us the limitation of Colbert’s approach to political satire. Through it, politicians come to be seen as simply funny people who say and do funny things that Colbert gets to poke fun at. What gets lost sight of here is that these people make decisions that hurt other people. And Kissinger made decisions that caused unimaginable suffering.

I wish Colbert good luck with his new talk show. I just hope that he leaves political satire to people who actually care.

Forrest Gump and the Manufacturing of Innocence

September 7, 2014

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It’s been 20 years since Forrest Gump was released. This anniversary is being celebrated with a week-long IMAX release. I guess this is a good enough excuse to write something that I’ve long been wanting to write.

When Forrest Gump first came out, it mostly received ecstatic reviews (with a few naysayers here and there). I went to see it fully expecting to enjoy it. The early scenes seemed promising. I liked Sally Fields as Forrest Gump’s mother. She quickly disappeared, however. After about half an hour, I started glancing at my watch, wondering how much longer this thing would go on. I was watching stick figure characters who were doing things that were neither believable nor interesting. When the film finally ended, I left the theater feeling numb, as if I had just sat through a really long and really dull lecture.

So, what gives? Why did this mediocre film win such rave reviews? And why was it so hugely popular? (Those Bubbagump Shrimp hats were far and away the most annoying fashion item of the 1990’s.) This is something that I have thought about from time to time. I think that one of the significant things about this film is the fact that Gump is depicted as morally pure. There isn’t a mean-spirited bone in his body. He even manages to make it through the Vietnam War without killing anyone. (Although he somehow wins the Medal of Honor.)

But what’s really striking about this film is its racial angle. Gump is depicted as being not the least bit racist, despite the fact that he grows up in the Deep South during the time of Jim Crow. (We are also explicitly told that he is named after Nathan Bedford-Forrest, the founder of the Klu Klux Klan.) He is nice to almost all the black people he meets. (Interestingly, the only black person Gump doesn’t like is a Black Panther.) When Gump is in the Army, he meets a black soldier named Bubba, who talks non-stop about the different ways to cook shrimp. We’re expected to believe that Gump somehow forms a deep emotional bond with this self-absorbed monomaniac. Bubba is killed in the war, and after Gump leaves the army, he buys a shrimp boat and calls his business “Bubbagump Shrimp”. The film then has one of its moments of “whimsy”. A hurricane destroys all the shrimp boats except for Gump’s. This gives Gump a monopoly on the shrimp business that makes him wealthy. (This film’s makers expect us to see it as a good thing that a whole bunch of people were impoverished so Gump could get rich.) Gump then gives a bunch of money to Bubba’s mother, who works as a maid. She retires and buys a nice house, where she is waited upon by a maid. The film implies that this is a form of justice. (Although not for the woman who has to wait on Bubba’s mother.)

The clear subtext of this film is that Gump absolves us of our sins. (The film critic, Gene Siskel, once called this movie “a healing balm”.) We’ve had 500 years of racism, but it’s OK, because Gump was nice to Bubba’s mom. Two million Vietnamese were killed in the war, but, hey, at least Gump didn’t kill any of them!

Forrest Gump promotes a notion of American “innocence” that helped to create the cultural climate in this country that made the invasion of Iraq possible.

The Fog of War

January 6, 2013

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I just got around to watching Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War. I didn’t see this film when it first came out, probably because 2003 was a busy year for me. I found it somewhat disappointing. Much of it consists of McNamara trying to justify his actions. I should have expected that, but the reviews I read led me to believe it would be much more than that. Still, the film does have some interesting moments, and it gives some insight into the way one member of the ruling class thinks. I don’t think this is a minor thing. I think that perhaps the reason so many people on the Left are suckers for crackpot conspiracy theories is that they don’t have much understanding of how the ruling class thinks.

The film begins with McNamara, who is shown in tight close-ups most of the time, discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara repeatedly points out the U.S. and the Soviet Union came extremely close to a nuclear war. McNamara uses his account of the crisis to illustrate one of the “eleven lessons” he talks about in the course of The Fog of War; in this case, “empathize with your enemy”. McNamara tells how a diplomat named Tommy Thompson, who knew Krushchev well, persuaded a skeptical Kennedy that the Soviet premier would be willing to cut a deal over Cuba, which turned out to be the case. This raises the question of why there was a crisis at all, though, unfortunately, Morris doesn’t ask this question. McNamara also uses this incident to illustrate another one of his “lessons”: “rationality will not save us”. McNamara insists that the governments of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Cuba all behaved in a “rational” manner, even though they brought their countries to the brink of nuclear annihilation. So, if this is rationality, then what is irrationality? And if rationality will not save us, then what will? Morris doesn’t ask, and McNamara doesn’t say.

The Fog of War then goes into a discussion of McNamara’s early years. During the Second World War, he served as an analyst for the Army Air Corps. Under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, McNamara helped plan the fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people. This leads to the film’s most startling moment: McNamara frankly states that he and Gen. LeMay were war criminals. Still, he expresses no regrets about what he did.

The largest section of the film is devoted to the Vietnam War. McNamara doesn’t say much about the strategic justification for the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam; he seems to consider this to be self-evident. McNamara admits that there was some confusion over what actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident; nevertheless, he and President Johnson used it as justification to launch an intensive bombing campaign in North Vietnam. McNamara also gives a discussion in which he tries to distance himself from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. To illustrate his “lesson” of “empathize with your enemy”, McNamara talks about how years after the war he met the former foreign minister of North Vietnam. McNamara says he was surprised to learn from this man that his government viewed the U.S. as a foreign colonial power trying to take control of their country. Reall? It never occurred to McNamara that the Vietnamese might view the U.S. in this way? If McNamara was being honest here, then he was every bit as self-deluded as the people who led us into the Iraq War. (It so happens that this film was released the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)

McNamara casually discusses the deaths of millions of people, yet he gets choked up when he recounts how he helped pick out the grave-site for John F. Kennedy. One is reminded here of Stalin’s dictum: “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” I don’t think it is a stretch for me to say that McNamara had some of Stalin’s bureaucratic mind-set.

Another of McNamara’s “lessons” is “in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil”. One wonders if McNamara ever questioned whether what he was trying to do was actually good.

The Baader Meinhof Complex

December 31, 2012

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The 2008 German film, The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel from a screenplay by Bernd Eichinger, tells the story of the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader Meinhof Group, a terrorist group active in Germany from the 1970’s through the 1990’s. The group had broad support in its early years. It appealed to young people disillusioned with post-war German society. They were particularly opposed to the Vietnam War and the West German government’s passive support for it, which they viewed as being analogous to Germans who had allowed the Holocaust to happen. The death of Che Guevara had also inspired many of these people.

The film begins with a demonstration against the Shah of Iran during his visit to Berlin in 1967. The police attack a crowd of student demonstrators, resulting in the death of Benno Ohnesorg. Shortly afterwards, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) fire bomb a department store, protesting the political complacency of German society. Baader is eventually arrested by the police. A journalist, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), interviews him in prison. Meinhof is frustrated by what she sees as the inability of her journalism to bring about any change. Meinhof agrees to help Baader to escape from prison, which she does. She then joins Baader’s gang, which he has christened as the Red Army Faction (RAF).

The rest of the film starts out as farce and ends as tragedy. The RAF leaders flee Germany to a Fatah camp in Jordan, to be trained in guerilla warfare. The RAF consider themselves to be in support of “Third World” liberation struggles. Once in the camp, however, they begin behaving like a bunch of spoiled teenagers. (This is the best way I can describe it.) They quarrel with the Fatah leaders, and they violate Palestinian social norms by, among other things, doing nude sunbathing in the middle of the camp. They return to Germany, where they carry out a series of daring bank robberies and bombings. However, the police capture or kill members of the RAF one by one. They eventually capture Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin. However, a “second generation” of RAF members springs up. They use terror methods to try get their leaders released, culminating in the highjacking of an airliner in 1977. When army troops succeed in freeing the hostages, Baader and the others despair of ever getting out of prison, so they kill themselves.

Edel and Eichinger try to compress a complex series of historical events into a two-and-a-half hour film with predictably uneven results. New RAF members suddenly appear out of nowhere, and at times it’s hard to tell who is doing what. The film touches upon some complex issues without addressing them in satisfying ways. For example, some people have raised reasonable doubts as to whether the RAF leaders actually killed themselves, suggesting that they might have been murdered. (According to Wikipedia: “… Baader was supposed to have shot himself in the base of the neck so that the bullet exited through his forehead; repeated tests indicated that it was virtually impossible for a person to hold and fire a gun in such a way. In addition, three bullet holes were found in his cell: one lodged in the wall, one in the mattress, and the fatal bullet itself lodged in the floor, suggesting that Baader had fired twice before killing himself. Finally, Baader had powder burns on his right hand, but he was left-handed.”) While the film mentions that there were doubts about the suicides, it doesn’t really discuss this matter. Also, the film ends with the RAF’s killing of the industrialist, Hans Martin Schleyer in 1978, although the RAF remained active well into the 1990’s.

This film is a grim reminder that terrorism doesn’t work. Germany is not a better place today because of the Baader Meinhof group. The 9/11 attacks resulted in the expansion of U.S. imperialism. Terrorism actually strengthens the state by providing it with an external enemy. (“War is the health of the state”, as Randolph Bourne once put it.) Only mass movements have ever brought about any progress.

Full Metal Jacket

December 20, 2012

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Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is an examination of the meaninglessness and amorality of war. It is also a critique of the military and its values. This film is based on the writings of two Vietnam war veterans, Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr.

The film tells two stories that subtly mirror each other. The first half of the film depicts the basic training experience of James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) at the Marine Corps base on Parris Island during the Vietnam War. He and a group of other recruits are under the command of a drill instructor, Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who was a Marine D.I. before he became an actor). Hartman aims most of his insults at Pvt. Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hapless recruit who can never seem to do anything right. Hartman gives him the nickname “Gomer Pyle” and proceeds to make his life miserable. His taunting of Lawrence has tragic results for both of them.

There were several things that struck me about this half of the film. The first is that on several occasions Hartman either slaps or punches people. In one scene, he chokes Lawrence. I was always under the impression that officers and N.C.O.’s are not allowed to hit soldiers. (Didn’t Gen. Patton almost get fired for doing that?) I have since learned from various sources that D.I.’s sometimes get away with hitting recruits, even though technically they are not supposed to do it. Another thing that struck was religious indoctrination. Hartman sometimes talks about religion to the recruits. In one scene, Hartman asks Davis if he believes in the Virgin Mary. When Davis says no, Harman punches him in the stomach. Among other things, Hartman merely asking that question violates the First Amendment. People in the military take an oath swearing to defend the Constitution. The issue of religious indoctrination in the military is one that crops up in the news every now and then. There have been attempts at the United States Air Force Academy to convert people to fundamentalist Christianity. I guess a belief in Biblical literalism helps one to drop bombs on people.

This film also depicts how misogyny and homophobia are instilled in recruits during basic training.

The second half depicts Davis’s experiences during the Battle of Hue. Full Metal Jacket manages to avoid the clichés of war movies. It leads to a harrowing climax in which the members of Davis’s platoon are picked off one by one by a sniper. For all their savage training, the soldiers turn out to be just frightened men dealing with a terrifying situation. The lone sniper turns out to be a woman. When Davis kills her, we are reminded of Lawrence killing Sgt. Harman. Full Metal Jacket ends with a scene of Marines marching through the ruins of Hue while singing the theme song of The Mickey Mouse Club. There is perhaps no better metaphor for U.S. imperialism.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

December 12, 2011

One rarely hears Paul Goodman’s name any more. You have to be of a certain age to have likely heard of him. Back in the 1960’s, he was, with the possible exception of Marshall McLuhan, the most famous intellectual in the United States. (The only comparable present-day figure is Noam Chomsky.) His Growing Up Absurd was a national bestseller. The book is a merciless critique of social institutions, exposing their inadequacy and arguing that people were becoming increasingly alienated from them. It helped inspire the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. It has long been out of print, but it is soon to be released on Kindle.

Goodman was a sort of thinker that we never see nowadays. He wrote on politics, sociology, psychology and urban design. He also wrote novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Jonathan Lee’s documentary tries to do justice to all these aspects of Goodman’s prolific writings, with uneven results.

Goodman came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He became an anarchist after reading Kropotkin, and this remained his basic philosophy for the rest of his life. He was a pacifist during World War II, a difficult time in which to be a pacifist. I would have liked it if the film had discussed this chapter in his life in more detail, but instead it moves on to Gestalt therapy, which Goodman developed with Fritz and Laura Perls. To give us some idea of what this is about, Lee shows us a clip from a film of Fritz Perls conducting a session. He invites a woman into his office and tells her to sit down. She lights a cigarette, smiles nervously, and tells him she feels “scared”. Perls tells her that because she smiled when she said she was “scared”, she was a “phony”. Not surprisingly, the woman takes offense at this. They go back and forth about this for a while, then Perls says, “So, now we are getting somewhere”. In all honesty, I couldn’t see the point of all this.

Fortunately, Goodman devoted his attention to other matters as well. Goodman had very strong views on education. He advocated creating small schools with no more than 25 or 30 students in each. (There is some logic in this idea. Any teacher will tell you that students tend to do better in small classes, because they receive more personal attention.) Goodman became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear arms race. He frequently spoke at college campuses during the sixties. However, Goodman’s traditional anarchism eventually brought him into conflict with the New Left of that period. He abhorred the ultra-leftism of the S.D.S., and he disapproved of the drug culture. By the time of his death in 1972, his influence on the left had begun to dwindle.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to Goodman’s sex life. There is reason for this, since Goodman was openly bisexual at a time when gays were often subject to legal harassment. However, this film told me more about this topic than I really wanted to know. Goodman was married and had three children, yet he spent a good deal of time having brief, meaningless affairs with men he met in bars, at the beach, and on airplanes. Just as you would expect, this behavior sometimes created strains between Goodman and his family. This is interesting – up to a point. I would have liked to learn more about Goodman’s anarchist and pacifist ideas, as well as about his troubled relationship with the New Left. Lee clearly wants to get people to read Goodman’s writings, but I don’t see how dwelling on the sordid details of his personal life is supposed to do this.